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Taxis


DC taxi panel recommends solid red color

All taxis in the District of Columbia will be red by 2018 if the city adopts a recommen­dation from a DC Taxicab Commission committee, Martin Austermuhle reports.


Photo by kenjonbro on Flickr.

The commission had unveiled a number of more detailed designs in December to almost universal scorn. Councilmember Mary Cheh, who had written the legislation mandating a uniform color, said she had meant a single color, not some complex design.

Before the garish designs came out, many spoke in favor of the red color. After all, the Circulator is red, as are Capital Bikeshare bikes, and streetcars will be as well. Others worried that the sometimes bad experience of DC taxis might harm the brand identity of these other modes if taxis are also red.

Will Sommer writes that drivers of the "Yellow Cab" company don't like the idea because their cabs won't be yellow any more. The commission reportedly did not consider yellow as the universal color because of Yellow Cab. Would the company have preferred to have all taxis match its color or to have to paint its taxis something other than yellow?

Personally, I'm not sure we really needed a single color at all. It's not really hard to distinguish taxis today, and even if they're all red, people will have to differentiate them from solid red private cars. This feels more like regulating for the sake of regulating rather than to solve a specific problem, just like with the Uber situation.

If DC must have a single color, though, solid red is definitely better than the previous taxicab commission schemes. What do you think?

Taxis


Taxis will have credit card readers, and choice

You'll be able to use credit cards in DC taxis by March 30. Instead of one single credit card machine in all cabs, drivers will get the freedom to choose their own technology. But they'll still have to install an in-car display screen that regulators will choose; is that necessary?


Interactive screen in a NYC taxi. Photo by Aaron Landry on Flickr.

The DC Taxicab Commission (DCTC) went through a long bidding process to pick a single piece of technology to go in every taxi. This would take credit cards, show GPS information and ads (whose revenue the taxis would get a cut of), report taxi locations back to the DCTC, and more.

Verifone's bid won, and DCTC started requiring taxis to install Verifone's devices. But a challenge by rivals blocked the process, and on Friday the DCTC partly threw in the towel. Instead of forcing every cab to use Verifone's device, they are instead going to just require that every taxi accept credit cards in some way; the specific technology is up to the driver.

Ron Linton told the Post's Mike DeBonis that their approach changed because the marketplace changed:

"A year ago, when we came up with the 'smart meter' concept, it was a way to get credit cards and the other kind of technological things we wanted in the cabs quickly," he said. "We couldn't say, 'Do this,' because where would the drivers go? What would they get? Since then, there are six, seven, eight companies coming in here offering credit card services. .. They also are offering electronic reservations, which we want."
If the DCTC picks a single piece of technology, everyone's stuck with that choice, whether they made the best call or a bad one, and even if technology evolves.

In that case, doesn't this same logic apply to other features as well? DeBonis writes that Linton plans a new procurement for the system that will have "an interactive screen, GPS navigation and 'panic buttons' to hail authorities." Why should DCTC pick a single piece of technology to do this? Most of this is nice to have, but really not that central to a taxi rider's experience.

One argument for a centralized technology choice, which Councilmember Mary Cheh made when passing the original bill which mandated these credit card, GPS, interactive screen, and panic button systems (and a standard color scheme for taxis), is that taxi drivers are often not the most cutting-edge when it comes to technology. Plus, since most people pick taxis based on whichever one shows up rather than choosing a company ahead of time, there isn't really much incentive today for a taxi to install a better but more expensive system. It probably won't draw more riders.

Therefore, that thinking goes, drivers will just install cheaper systems that could work poorly or break down a lot, and DCTC would spend a lot of effort monitoring and inspecting them, when it could just pick one system and ensure a baseline of quality.

But this also closes the door to innovation and opportunities for different vendors to compete. Any contract will likely run for a number of years, during which the manufacturer will have little reason to add features or make the devices better.

DCTC could just mandate outcomes rather than means, as it's doing with the credit card readers. Drivers could just pick any screen vendor, so long as its display meets certain requirements, like showing the rider the current location and sending GPS data back to DCTC. Drivers can keep the advertising revenue as an incentive to install a screen.

On the other hand, this could mean an incentive for drivers to pick a screen that gives them the most money (maybe by being most intrusive with its ads) rather than being most useful for the rider.

What do you think is betterletting drivers pick their in-car screens, even if their incentives don't match the rider's, or having regulators pick it, which locks all cabs into a single technology for a long period of time?

Taxis


DC unveils 4 taxi livery options

DC has unveiled 4 options for a uniform citywide taxicab paint scheme. DCist's Martin Austermuhle is live-tweeting the presentation.

Here they are:


Photo by Martin Austermuhle.

Although it's not online yet, officials say there will be a survey on dctaxi.dc.gov asking for feedback. After that, the city will presumably pick a livery and set a timeline for adoption.

It's a little unclear, but while this shows both 4 liveries and 4 possible vehicle types, all vehicles will have the same livery.

What do you think? We have differing views.

Choose red for a consistent brand

by Dan Malouff

Back in 2009, I said that by not having a uniform color scheme, DC is losing out on an important branding opportunity. New York's yellow taxis are one of the strongest images associated with that city. Since DC has as many cabs per capita as New York, the same could be true here.

Red is the natural choice. We want something distinctly different from New York, and clearly associated with DC. Since red is already the primary color of DC Circulator, Capital Bikeshare, and the future DC Streetcars, it makes sense to use the same colors on taxis. Doing so evokes a uniform brand for the city's entire transportation system, across multiple modes.


Photo by Martin Austermuhle.

Two of the options released today use red. One of them, pictured here, uses the same shade as Circulator and Bikeshare, and includes a similar yellow stripe down the side. Of the 4 options, this is the best. But it would be better with red and white reversed, so that red is the dominant color.

Ideally I'd prefer a simple solid red, with maybe some yellow highlights. But since there are a lot of solid red private cars out there that aren't taxis (which isn't a problem for New York's yellow), I'm willing to concede that something a little more complex is necessary here. If we want red, it may need to be multi-colored.

Make it more professional, or choose none at all

by David Alpert

Dan is right that it's not a bad idea to evoke the Circulator and DC Streetcar branding. However, where the Circulator and streetcar are elegant, this looks amateurish.


Photo by DDOTDC on Flickr.

The Circulator and streetcar have delicate, curving yellow lines, while this has a thick, straight one. On those, the yellow line is the interface between red and white; here, the yellow line is its own separate piece with white between it and red, giving this far more interfaces between colors.

Dan is right that red and white is better than the other set of colors, yellow and green. That is Arlington Transit's color scheme; why should DC taxis look like Arlington buses?

Having the white on top means that from the front, most taxis will just look white, which defeats much of the purpose of giving them a uniform color. The Taxicab Commission could fix this one point by flipping red and white, as Dan suggests, but that won't make the design attractive.

I generally don't think we need a uniform brand at all. This push for a uniform color seems to be regulating for regulating's sake. If we are set on it, though, either the design has to look more professional, like the Circulator, or be much more simple, such as one color or two in a simple configuration.

Taxis


Cheh would limit regulation for Uber and taxi apps

"Sedan" cars like the ones the popular car service Uber uses, and any electronic apps that help people book either sedans or traditional taxis, would gain protection from most regulation under a proposal by Councilmember Mary Cheh.


Photo by Dkmelo on Flickr.

Cheh (ward 3), the chair of the committee that oversees transportation, released the "committee print" of her bill to legalize services like Uber. The committee will mark up the bill on Friday.

The bill, now entitled the Public Vehicle-for-hire Innovation Amendment Act of 2012, has a new section explicitly exempting most "digital dispatch services" from regulation by the DC Taxicab Commission. DCTC can still impose some requirements on "digital dispatch services," like Uber, Taxi Magic, Taxi Radar, or Hailo, but only for certain purposes:

  • Geography: Dispatch services can only use vehicles licensed in DC, or non-DC vehicles for trips to or from those other jurisdictions (a regional body, WMATC, which is totally different from WMATA, regulates these interstate trips.) However, DCTC also has to start licensing new drivers and vehicles.
  • Equity: The services and drivers will have to serve all parts of DC, and otherwise not discriminate against any passengers.
  • Receipts: Riders have to get an electronic or paper receipt after the trip. But unlike with the DCTC's proposed regulations, the service can choose; Uber, which gives everyone an electronic receipt, won't have to also add printers to every vehicle. Other services could use paper instead if they wished.
  • Transparent fares: Services will have to clearly tell riders about their pricing system, and give riders an estimate of the fare when they book. Uber doesn't do this now, but CEO Travis Kalanick said at the recent hearing that they were working on adding it already.
Services will also have to give DCTC regular data dumps of where their various trips started and ended, their times, etc. but no personal information about the rider. This could let DCTC better understand demand patterns, and perhaps they can ultimately release data files publicly, like Capital Bikeshare has done.

The bill does ban one current Uber practice: drivers rating passengers. Uber's system lets passengers give drivers a rating after their trip, which helps future passengers choose among drivers, but it also lets drivers rate their passengers. Cheh is concerned this could help drivers discriminate among passengers who want to go to unpopular locations, because of their background, or for other such reasons.

As for sedans, DCTC can regulate them to ensure they are safe or to protect consumers from fraud, but its regulatory power is otherwise limited. DCTC can also collect the same trip data from sedans. (They will get that data from taxis as well through the new electronic meters that recent legislation required for all taxis.)

Taxi companies would be able to operate both sedans and cabs, and drivers could even get a single license letting them drive both types of cars, but the cars themselves would remain separate. All taxis will be one uniform color beginning next summer, while sedans will remain black and more luxurious.

This keeps a strict separation between taxis, which are one type of vehicle that look one way and charge fixed rates, and sedans, whose rates aren't regulated. It means taxi companies can't start competing on value and raise prices, but it makes it more likely that the current taxi market remains largely as is while enabling services like Uber.

It also hopefully keeps the DCTC from going overboard with silly requirements for sedan services or taxi dispatch apps. These apps and services represent the best chance to bring new innovations and better service to potential riders.

I've reached out to Uber for comment about whether they support the bill, but hadn't yet heard back. I'll update this post if they respond.

Taxis


Taxi Commission proposed own Uber-style "surge pricing"

Late yesterday afternoon, the DC Taxicab Commission (DCTC) announced that taxis could charge an extra $1 per passenger when Nats playoff games are in town. Confusion and outrage ensued, and within 2 hours, Mayor Gray rejected the plan, and the commission has rescinded it.


Photo by JL08 on Flickr.

Ironically, this move has a lot in common with Uber's "surge pricing," which proposed regulations from the Taxicab Commission would forbid. It would apply from 2 hours before games start until 4 am the following morning.

The Taxi Commission posted a short notice last Thursday about the surcharge, but with few other details. It did not notify the media at the time.

The PR snafu, short notice, and poor timing sank the proposal, but had the commission handled the rollout better and avoided the firestorm, would this charge have worked?

What did the commission want to accomplish? Linton said in the news release,

We expect multiple riders to be using taxi services. The additional fare provides a fair compensation to drivers. It will also offer an incentive to deal with the increased congestion around the ballpark that could otherwise depress service, as well as assure service in other parts of the city.
At first blush, these reasons seem nonsensical and contradictory. The commission wants to encourage drivers to operate around the ballpark, so they have a surcharge to create an incentive for drivers to head to the ballpark. But then, they want drivers to not all cluster around the ballpark, so they have a surcharge for drivers to go elsewhere. Don't these just cancel each other out?

Commenters online seem to feel the same way. On the City Paper post, commenter "One City!" wrote, "I love this city so much. Whenever you think we've reached the height of absurdity, the DCTC is there to show you we still have room to grow." RedLineHero said on the Washington Post site, "What the H-E-double-hockey-stick kind of harebrained idea is that? a surcharge during the playoffs? You have GOT to be kidding me. Good on Mayor Gray for shooting that down."

Uber "surge pricing" gets more drivers on the road

This surcharge is actually a lot like popular car service Uber's "surge pricing." If demand gets high, Uber increases its fares, first to 1¼ normal, then 1½, and so on. Anyone who books a car gets a notification about the higher pricing before the car is dispatched. All of the extra money goes to the drivers.

At the recent hearing, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick defended the practice. He said that the primary reason is to increase supply. They don't want riders unable to book their cars. At busy times, by raising the price and giving drivers the money, he said, it encourages more of their drivers to get out on the road and serve customers.

By that logic, the surcharge makes some sense. Many drivers work at different times of day. A bonus for working at this likely busy time could actually encourage drivers to switch their schedules around if they can, and be available during games. Some could go to Nats Park and serve fares there, but since the surge price applies all around the city, it will also encourage drivers to serve other neighborhoods.

DCTC's explanations don't hold water

If this was the DCTC's thinking, they certainly didn't make it clear. Will Sommer at the City Paper wrote, "Taxi Cab Commission spokesman Neville Waters says the extra charge has two functions: ensuring that the city's cab drivers don't just swarm Nationals Park, and making trips more profitable for drivers who are stuck in stadium traffic." He quoted Waters saying that without the surcharge, drivers would only drive to the ballpark and nowhere else.

These reasons don't match the policy. If DCTC is worried drivers will only drive to the ballpark, why would a surcharge that applies in all neighborhoods have any effect? It doesn't make trips around the ballpark more or less appealing compared to others.

As for the second argument, compensating drivers for traffic is why the rates include both time and distance. The playoff games probably won't cause traffic jams any worse than other events in DC, and the commission doesn't authorize surcharges every time there's a motorcade. If the DCTC believes that large traffic jams cause drivers to unfairly lose money, then they should raise the per-minute idling rate instead of using surcharges.

However, if the DCTC actually just wants to get more cabs on the road, this surcharge isn't a bad way to do that. It would just help a lot for them to actually articulate the economic reasons.

Wakehead commented at the Post, "How about they have more taxis work for the Nats games? Or is the target service model 'lines and surcharges'?" A rational answer to this could be, "Actually, the surcharge does get more taxis to work the games; it's lines OR surcharges, not lines AND surcharges, and we chose surcharges over lines."

We don't know what was going on inside the Taxi Commission's heads, but they are behaving as though they have some vague and general sense of the economic levers they have at their disposal, but aren't able to actually discuss it in clear terms.

The same dynamic played out at the recent taxi hearing, when people like Kalanick seemed to be speaking one economics-based language, and Linton and members of the DC Council a different law-based language. Ultimately, they agreed with one another, but it took hours (and some taxi drivers who didn't speak in economics) to break through the language barrier.

DCTC might actually want to consider trying a surcharge at a future event, like the Inauguration, but explaining it better. Trying a surcharge could also help them gauge how much supply it adds; Uber is able to monitor their supply and demand in real time and adjust prices accordingly, but the Taxicab Commission can't do that.

If the commission does come to recognize that it's using demand-based pricing, perhaps that will also make it less hostile to practices like Uber's "surge pricing" and other innovative pricing arrangements from mobile apps and sedan services.

Update: Uber DC manager Rachel Holt wrote in with some helpful information from their surge experience:

From what Uber has seen, during big games demand during the game is usually extremely low. Most people in DC are watching the gameswhether at the stadium, or in bars, or at home, etc. By mandating the additional charges during the game, itself they are just further depressing demand (probably more than the amount of the increase), thus making drivers worse off during this period.
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